Poplar veteran honors service members with flag display
The full display of 50 flags only comes out a few times a year.
A few days a year, flags bloom in a hay field along U.S. Highway 2 in Poplar.
The site includes a garden, statue, carved eagle overhead and name plaques honoring local veterans, a private tribute from Air Force veteran and retired Northwestern High School math teacher Charlie Bergsten.
“I don't know if you have ever seen his display when he has all 50 flags out, but frankly it is breathtaking,” said Naomi Stein, of Maple.
Millie Rounsville grew up in Poplar and remembers when a P-38 Lightning plane was displayed outside Poplar Elementary School in honor of World War II Ace of Aces Richard I. Bong. A museum was attached to the school. Now, that memorabilia rests in the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior.
“I think it is wonderful that Charlie has taken the time and heartfelt effort to put something back into the community,” Rounsville said. “The display is a prime location and now you even see people stopping and taking photos. I appreciate his dedication to honor those who have served. I wish every community had a person like this.”
A 2014 visit to the Veterans Walk of Flags in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, inspired Bergsten to create his own flag display. The town lines its sidewalks with nearly 1,900 American flags to celebrate days honoring veterans.
He started in 2015 with 20 flags, 19 of them honoring relatives who served in the military. The display has grown to 50 American flags, with Bergsten adding the names of classmates and people he knew in the community. A walk through the space Tuesday, Nov. 3, revealed names like Lundberg, Lepasti, Fechtelkotter and Rounsville.
"I just pick and choose, and maybe some wish they were here that aren't" Bergsten said, but he doesn't plan to add any more names. "It's just my thing."
Five service flags in front honor the branches of the military. Marine Corps veteran Cheri Fitch, of Cloverland, said it's something she appreciates.
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She said she loves to see the flags waving when she drives by, especially on Veterans Day, which takes place a day after the Marine Corps’ birthday.
“It makes me feel like I’m home again with the Marines,” said Fitch, who served 17 years.
Two of the flag bases are decorated with gold stars, honoring veterans who were killed in action — Keith Janke and Dale Falk. On the anniversary of their deaths, respectively, Bergsten flies a single flag and sets up a battlefield cross in their memory. Between them is a flag for Bong, decorated with a blue star because he died while serving the country.
“As I’ve been doing this, things have evolved,” Bergsten said. “I never knew how it was going to end up. It just started.”
The soldier statue came from Mississippi, a gift from a retired Air Force buddy. Local artist Justin Howland of Grizzworks carved the wooden eagle statue that tops the tree stump. Howland is a former student of Bergsten's.
The most recent additions to the space are laser-engraved plaques on each flag base, letting visitors know who they are being flown for. Bergsten used to have identification on the flag poles, but family members couldn't find it easily. Tuesday, Bergsten was adding a larger plaque to a rock near the entrance to the field across from a rock that says “Welcome.”
He added the plaque so people knew they weren't trespassing by stopping to take a closer look — visitors are welcome to the spot. The land has been in Bergsten’s family since 1925.
"It’s been fun to come over," he said. "I’ve had Canadians come over and stop, and people from all over.”
Lori Magerl lives just down the road from Bergsten in Maple and drives by the hay field every day. She and her husband, Richard, both served in the U.S. Army. They appreciate the flags and the respect they symbolize, but they've never stopped.
"We probably take for granted where we live and things we see all the time, but it's kind of nice to see people that pull over," Magerl said.
The new plaque features words Bergsten uses to describe the space: “For all who dare to take the oath to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.”
"Because when you do that, you put your life on the line," he said.
The flags are only out a few days a year; the rest of the time Bergsten stores them in a custom-made base. It hasn't been free, but the Poplar man enjoys doing it.
“I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t bring me joy,” Bergsten said.